How to pick the winners – just don’t spend it all at once

Sunday 8 January 2006

Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.
One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

So they sent off unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Literary agents and publishers are illiterate blah blah blah. The thing about hoaxes and pranks is whatever lesson they purport to teach us is, at best, unclear, but The Sunday Times misses the point of their own exercise entirely.
It’s not that they can’t recognise quality, but that don’t even look for it. The Times is either naive or dishonest to imply that someone at each of these publishers actually read (or pretended to read) the chapters before rejecting them. More importantly, they leave out the most important piece of information: did they include a cover letter? Imagine a thumbnail bio for the pseudo-Naipaul: “I am a Caribbean immigrant of Indian descent.” I bet the agents would pay closer attention to that sentence than any paragraph in the opening chapter of In a Free State.
(Come to think of it, has anyone at the Times read In a Free State? Even the chapter that was retyped for this prank? That must have been a task for the work-experience kid, surely.)
I’m not saying you have to have an intriguing ethnic background to get published; I’m saying that the majority of today’s book-buyers (a different class from book-readers) are interested not in the book, but in the author. As Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory described the secret of Jeffrey Archer’s literary [sic] success:
His books… understood what the true fucntion of a book was…. the power of the novels lay in the fact that they didn’t have to be read…. Ownership of one of the novels gave you a direct line to the author: he was incarnated in a way that his ephemeral productions never would be. Take any title from the shelf at WH Smith’s, Liverpool Street Station, and you are shaking hands with Lord Archer.

Success itself can be the reason behind an author’s charismatic allure. Race is merely one of a variety of pegs you can hang your nascent career upon: a bad childhood, a stretch in the pokey, the drugs, the terrible drugs. Agents and publishers might bother to read the books submitted to them if they knew that any of the punters who buy their wares actually read anything themselves.

If your personal life is terminally dull, you can always make something up; although these days it’s probably too risky to fake your ethnic history – that one’s pretty much played out thanks to the likes of Khuri, Menchu, Demidenko et al. Otherwise, you can be pretty free with your invention: people do check, but not very hard.
Regarding this last point: James Dolan at The Exile, author of the most hostile review ever, has turned into Captain Ahab pursuing the great white frat-boy author James Frey, author of A Million Pieces of Shit (after reading his review I can never think of it by its real title.) Dolan is now seeking readers’ help in gathering evidence that Frey lied about having been in prison to bolster his bad-boy credibility. He has become so obsessed with Frey’s lucrative dishonesty that he now suspects his confession of drug addiction to be almost entirely fabricated (“A rich boy like him using glue? That’s just a lie.”) and cribbed from the writings of Eddie Little.
If you completely lack the imagination to invent or plagiarise some skeletons for your closet, you can at least add retrospective lustre to your career by killing yourself. (How much lower would teenagershave to set their literary standards if Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane posessed more self-restraint?)
If, by some chance, you are actually any good at writing and score a publishing deal, you will still be reduced in the public discourse to the level of a performing seal, trotting out predigested sob-stories of how you once watched your best friend die (it made you, it must be said, a stronger person). You can remind yourself of the second act of Coriolanus and decide between integrity and the chance of a second book hitting the shelves. People do not want literature, they want biography, preferably of the most lurid kind; and the publishers give the people what they want.
But maybe we’ve got this tale of overlooked literary worth all wrong. The whole Times exercise begs the question as to whether anything that wins the Booker is in fact any good in the first place. Maybe the agents actually did read the proferred chapters and exercised perfect judgement in dismissing them. How often does compromise, consensus and groupthink debase the standards of each jury member? Not to mention anticipating the reaction of the press, the Booker’s sponsors (or the Pulitzer board, who can and have vetoed jury decisions), and their future employment. Have you looked through the lists of previous prizewinners: the Bookers, the Pulitzers, the Nobels? Think you could stand to read them all? How many of the most compelling and enduring books you can think of are on these lists – does it even crack 50/50?
Who wants to read Joseph Hergesheimer, the most lauded American author of the 1920s? Can you even find one of his books? Who wants to lay bets on anyone even glancing at DBC Pierre a quarter of a century from now? Anyone? Let’s see your money.